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From the Desk of Jack Healy

Collaboration Offers Opportunity for New England’s Freight Transportation Challenges

By Jack Healy, Director, Manufacturing Advancement Center, [email protected]

Every now and then a remarkable political message surfaces, as happened recently when Governor-Elect Deval Patrick addressed the Greater Worcester Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Patrick refreshingly stated that he wanted  “better regional and statewide infrastructure planning, in order to help businesses grow.” He went on to say, “It is time for state government to show you and other business investors that we understand the importance of speed to market and are willing to do something about it.”  In a very apt phrase, Mr. Patrick summed it all up, “No goose, no golden egg.”

This is certainly good news for the interconnected world of manufacturing that, in Massachusetts as well as throughout the rest of New England, has been dealing with the collective adversity of our infrastructure’s critical deficits, such as ports, highways, railroads, airports, telecommunications links, and power plants. 

In the new era of global supply chains and lean manufacturing inventories, the New England manufacturing community is seriously behind the “global connectiveness” curve.

New England: Isolated, Inefficient Transporation
According to the New England Futures Group, “New England seems frozen in time and space, unaware of how seriously isolated and inefficient it’s becoming with its overburdened interstates, poorly maintained bridges and local roads, shrunken and imperiled rail service, and lack of a modern deepwater port.”

This is truly unfortunate for New England manufacturers. They are now starting to see a direct impact on freight costs, with rising rates, higher fuel costs, and constrained transportation capacity. It has become yet another area that manufacturers must concentrate on, especially because it directly affects the service levels to customers. 

Managing Risk vs Continuous Improvement
Supply Chain management has become so sensitive to any disruptions in the flow of goods that manufacturers are now being forced to focus on managing risk rather than planning for continuous improvement. The penalty for late deliveries in today’s marketplace can be severe, as late deliveries often halt a customer’s production operation. Needless to say, this is not well tolerated.

The worldwide disruptions from natural disasters, terrorists acts, etc. are compounded in New England by a series of constraints that cause New England to function like an island economy.  Anyone entering New England on Interstate 95 in Connecticut will quickly realize that they are sitting on the largest freight corridor into our community.  I say “sitting” because that is what most people on that road do when they are on it, as the congestion is world-renowned. Interstate 95 is the primary connection point for the three major interstates feeding New England. Unfortunately, no one has a real solution for correcting the congestion, especially with respect to construction.

The Poor State of Rail
As the New England Futures Organization points out, rail is not as viable a solution as you may have thought. The Futures group stated, “We were amazed to discover a 2002 study showing railroads handle only 5 percent of the freight shipments in Maine, 2 percent in Connecticut, and a minuscule 1 percent or less in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  One reason, 30 years ago a rail bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie burned down. It’s never been replaced.  So a rail shipment from New York to Stamford has to go north to Albany, then east and back down south, at substantial extra expense. As a result, all of the freight goes to trucks instead.

“Yet New England, a century ago, had a robust rail network covering a huge percentage of its territory.  Many of these rail lines — or at least their right-of-way — still exist. But New England’s state transportation departments have made no push to coalesce, project needed passenger services, consult with sometimes obdurate freight railroads, and employ carrots and sticks to get longer distance freight onto trains.”

Restarting Transportation Discussions
The New England Council has, for a number of years, worked diligently to promote resolution to a number of New England’s numerous transportation issues by promoting collaboration between the states and the federal government. While the list of needs still seems daunting, opportunities for resolution abound. The New England Council feels that the 2006 elections have brought some important changes, including Governor-Elect Patrick, as well as the increased clout for the New England Congressional delegation.

In the wake of these changes, the New England Council is seeking to restart discussions on regional transportation planning involving all six of the New England states.

The Council played a large role in facilitating the New England Transportation Initiative of the 1990’s that brought together transportation planners in each of the states. As an initial step in this new effort, the Council is producing a report with HNTB, the consulting firm, on some of the much-needed multi-state transportation projects and their importance to the New England economy.

The role model for cross-border collaboration comes from the Midwestern governors who recently reached agreement to invest  $20 billion to clean up the Great Lakes and to work with the Canadian government to control the export of water from the region. If the Great Lakes can do something like this, why can’t we collaborate to solve our transportation issues? 

As stated by Governor-Elect Patrick, “In the places where we compete for business investment today, public investment in infrastructure is considered wise. But we have been starving our infrastructure and we have to fix it.”

This is something to look forward to. To do otherwise will slowly kill the goose.

For more on the transportation issue, see the article by Chop Hardenburgh, Editor, Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports, “Favor State Contractors Who Use Rail.


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